Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.

Daily Bread Plus

I have a confession to make. I’m not a foodie. These days such an admission is tantamount to a venial sin, but the fact is I’m one of those who eats to live, not lives to eat. Still, like many people I’m concerned about whence my food comes. I can’t grow my own and just about all of it comes wrapped in plastic. Thus I found a BBC article my wife sent me to be of great interest: “An uncanny mixture: God, alcohol and even cannabis” by Kait Bolongaro. Focusing on monasteries and their brewing and distilling traditions, Bolongaro uses the foodie angle well. People want to know where their grub comes from, and the current interest in knowing the location of the source plays well into this. European monasteries have long been known for their production of alcohol. Even Jesus drank wine.

I’m no connoisseur of spiritous liquors, but the story is quite interesting. Many people don’t realize that monastic orders, in addition to praying and not having sex, also support themselves through industry. Many make goods to sell. Those in this article make booze. As Bolongaro points out, the fermentation and distillation process is an exacting one. In fact, it is a science. In the case of Chartreuse only three monks know the secret formula. They control the temperatures and conditions remotely, by computer. And I thought Bible Gateway was the only place the religious spent their time.

IMG_2642

Science and religion actually have a very long history of cooperation. Gregor Mendel, whose work gave Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection its actual mechanism, was a monk. Other religious have been close observers of nature and processes. There is no commandment against good beer, as many Teutonic brothers would no doubt point out. But to get it right you have to know your chemistry. As the article says, some things can’t be rushed and monastic life lends itself to such slow processes. The rest of us in our secular pursuits rush through life far too fast for religion or science. Contemplation requires “down time.” Time off the clock. The kind of time, we’re told, that simply doesn’t exist any more. The story, after all, appears in BBC Business. I’m no foodie, but I have to confess that the cheese and pretzels purchased from the Amish in Lancaster do tend to taste better than those that come wrapped in plastic. There may be a religion to science after all.

The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?

Being Humanity

KindnessOfStrangersWhat do you want to be when you grow up? The question kept recurring as I read The Kindness of Strangers. The name Kate Adie may be more familiar to readers from the UK than to those from the US. While spending three years and a bit in Scotland, my wife and I grew accustomed to hearing her name as a reporter with the BBC. I’ve just finished reading her memoir and it brought to mind several points that hit quite close to home. Apart from being engagingly written, her biographical essays highlight the difficulties women still face in much of the world. As a journalist, Adie traveled to many vexed locations where some expressed surprise that a woman would have such freedom as to run around with men, investigating, reporting, and being seen by many, many viewers. Meanwhile, those she sojourned among had to deal with oppressive regimes, low standards of social justice, and, not infrequently, the fear of rape. It is a poignant and at times maddening account. Men the world over seem to share a horrid, deeply ingrained and reinforced concept that women are somehow there to serve them. Here we are in the twenty-first century and we’re still struggling with basic biology.

If I might tear myself away from that particular observation for a moment, I also found Adie’s firsthand accounts of the atrocities she witnessed deeply troubling. In this day of Holocaust awareness and the belief in human dignity, it is distressing to see how cheap life is under many governments in the world. How humans can be so inhumane boggles the mind of those with any sense that we’ve somehow evolved. Often the hatred is based in differing religious outlooks, but often religion is only an excuse. The offending religions that are touted almost all teach the descent treatment of your fellow human beings. Sadly, nothing appears to have been learned from the all-too-intentional violence of the past century. The real issue, reading between the lines, is power, not faith. It is easy to have a scapegoat, and some analysts (not Adie, I would emphasize) like to suggest a simple solution by placing their hands on the head of religion and confessing the deadly sin of being human over it.

The book, I should add, is not all gloom. Adie is witty, sophisticated, and a charming writer. One of the positive takeaways I had from her life story is that the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is all wrong. Adie never wanted to be a journalist, but through a series of circumstances eventually found herself one. A much decorated and honored one, no less. This is a lesson for our time. The old stabilities of choosing a career and staying with it seem to have eroded from beneath us. It is increasingly difficult to plan ahead for an uncertain future. Adie is a fine example of how to adapt along the way. More than that—and men pay attention here—she’s an exceptional example of what it means to be human. This is what we should all strive to be when we grow up.

Under the Weather

A friend, knowing my penchant to watch the skies, sent me a story about the British and the weather. The story by Alastair Sooke on the BBC’s cultural page is discussing Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book (yet) but the report of it appeals to someone who’s written a book on the weather, but for a much older timeframe. According to Harris, according to Sooke, the British are rumored to be obsessed with the weather. While living in the United Kingdom, my wife and I observed this. It is not merely casual conversation when someone discusses the weather. It is a serious topic. For a nation so accustomed to rain and gloomy skies, the weather has a religious import. It rarely goes without comment. I suppose that’s the point I was trying to make in my book. The weather is important. Vital, in fact, to human survival.

What really caught my attention here, however, was Harris’s observation that weather is used to characterize mood. Sooke mentions ice and snow and melancholy. The image is vivid: early Anglo-Saxons turing a wary eye to a winter sky with its low clouds and preternatural chill. It is so universal, it seems, not to require comment. Yet at the same time, weather can be a great trickster. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the image of the Arctic north filled him with an inexplicable joy. Winter can be fickle that way. In the world of the Psalmists, rain was a blessing and a weapon. How you look at it depends, well, on your mood.

DSCN0904

The British may take their weather more seriously, on a day-to-day basis, than those of us across the Atlantic. We tend to treat the topic casually. In reality, it is just as serious here. Drought, which has gripped the western half of the country for about half a century now, is a serious concern. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes. A lightning storm can still be a theophany. (One awoke me in the middle of the night, just hours ago.) Weather impacts our bodies as well as our moods. It is all-pervasive, but we generally don’t like to articulate it. I suspect our understanding of the weather says more about us than we’re willing to admit. Our British colleagues, however, are less squeamish about the topic than we tend to be. There’s more to the sky than it might appear.

Henging Our Bets

With the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, the history of civilization has received an unexpected prologue. In the view of the archaeologists involved in the excavation, the site can only be religious in nature, indicating that the earliest communal efforts of humans were not for mutual protection or for the benefits of growing crops, but for worship. In an era of angry atheists and nones, this isn’t really welcome news. Many people are ready to flush religion once and for all, claiming that it inspires only terrorists and fanatics to more and more extreme deeds. Well, I suppose Göbekli Tepe can be considered a form of extremism. Massive amounts of energy were required for the building of the site. And it was buried, intentionally, when the builders were finished with it. The news of a new component to the much later Stonehenge complex, the Durrington Walls, has recently been presented. Stonehenge, in England rather than in Turkey, and much closer in time to us than Göbekli Tepe, is a site that has touched the human imagination in a profound way. Still primitive at the time of its construction, Britain was a land already brimming with religious monuments. The new discoveries make it even more intriguing.

IMG_0234

Stonehenge is only a small part of what is now being called the Durrington Walls super-henge. Those who visit Salisbury Plain know that Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow are both impressive in their own right, and not far from the more famous sarsen stones that appear on everything from coffee mugs to tee-shirts and in movies and television shows of all genres. This part of prehistoric England seems to have been a sacred site many hectares in extent, with various “temples” and monuments dedicated to a religion we simply don’t understand. What is clear is that massive human energies were put into the building, expanding, upkeep, and functioning of this site. People have a deep, and very passionate urge to answer the religious longing that even sophisticated engineering can’t placate.

It could be argued, of course, that we’ve outgrown our childhood need for parents in the sky. Science and rational thought have shown us the way forward and although ancient monuments might be a fun diversion, they really mean nothing. I would disagree. Places like the Durrington Walls super-henge indicate what it is to be human. Clearly, given that even Stonehenge fell into disrepair and lay neglected for centuries, it was not a continuity that stretches, uninterrupted to today. Nevertheless, the effort expended to fill a void we feel should tell us something about what being conscious creatures is all about. Life doesn’t always make sense. The rational cannot explain everything. It would be naive to try to make Stonehenge reveal its secrets, but even standing at a distance (which is the only way you can gain admission any more) you have the sense that you are among those who knew what the human spirit required. Even if pagan and illiterate, they have spoken to us through the ages and we can only continue to wonder at what we’ve lost.

Excavating Religion

Jamestown, Virginia has the distinction of being the first British American colony to have survived. I’ve only been to Jamestown once, and that was about two or three years before the site was scheduled to celebrate its four-hundredth anniversary. William Shakespeare was still alive back in the home country. The King James Bible was not yet available. It was a gray day when we drove to the site and there were no other people around. Without a guide there was not much really to see—just a sense of being in touch with history by standing where the first English would eventually remake the land in their own image. Even the pilgrims tried to reach Virginia, but missed and landed in Massachusetts instead. Jamestown, however, lays a claim no other site can make.

A recent BBC article describes four graves lately found at the site. Located in the church, those buried were men of status. One of them was Reverend Robert Hunt, a clergyman of the Church of England and the first Anglican minister in North America. Interestingly, the BBC story points out, the Church of England was only half a century old at the time. Having spent many years among the Episcopalians at Nashotah House, I learned a great deal of the church’s history. The fact that the Episcopalians made it to America so shortly after their establishment is something I never heard emphasized. Concerned that the Catholic Church, under Spain, was collecting so much territory, the C of E wanted to stake a claim in the New World early on. Partially because of their persistence, we speak English even today. Church and empire were hand-in-glove in those days, and both the church in Spain and in England were state sponsored. Having God on your side can be pretty handy when you want to claim something that really doesn’t belong to you.

The reverend was buried west, facing the people he served, and, according to the article, this helped initially identify him as clergy. The church, in the service of the government, supported the conquest of new lands. The implicit belief that God was on the side of the strong has never really gone away. Mega-churches measure their spiritual assets in terms of fiscal influence. There are those today who believe that the Almighty wants the righteous to be rich, of course, at the cost of the wicked. Jamestown may have, at least partially, set the tone for a new nation that wanted to take more land than it needed. Land that others had occupied, and indeed, still lived upon. Only with the backing of a deity could such claims be made. The biggest god, after all, wins the day. Jamestown tells us more than we might suppose about what we’ve become as a nation. The early years are often the most formative of all.

Jamestown_Virginia_ruin